Mystère ia21 integrated amplifier Page 3
Jazz sounded particularly good via the Mystère. Heck, Paul Desmond's Bossa Antigua (CD, RCA Victor 68689-2) sounded perfect. Jazz guitar is a tricky thing to get right, but Jim Hall's axe had the right amount of transient snap and amp glow. Desmond's alto sax sounded clear, full, and right in the room with me, while the sounds of Connie Kay's drum kit remained in great balance with itself and the other instruments. The bass was a little fat and full, but delightfully so. Listening to this album was so engaging as this amp, again, showed its knack for playing the spaces between the notes.
The ia21 loved small ensembles of all kinds. Kronos Quartet's recording of Peteris Vasks' String Quartet 4 (CD, Nonesuch 79695-2) sounded very compelling. The Mystère really got the harmonic structure of the strings right, and I should knowI play the cello. The EL34s' generosity of tone gave the impression of even better dynamics than this amp actually has. Vasks' writing often alternates between sections of searing Jeremiac lamentation and quiet moments of sublime beauty. The ia21 did a nice job of turning on a dime between these contrasting sections. Similarly, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys' "Sinner Man," from Cry from the Cross (CD, Rebel REB-CD-1499), came alive, dynamically, tonally, and spatially. From my notes: "The effect on the music when played through the Mystère ia21 is like seeing a beautiful woman walking under the diffused light of a forest canopy; it's natural, slightly flattering, yet truthful."
While Peter Kruder's Peace Orchestra (CD, G-Stone GCD 004) lacks big dynamic swings, it does present almost constant low bass, and a complicated mix that involves the full audiobandthe sort of music with which I expected the lower-powered Mystère to fall down. Not so, as long as I didn't push the ia21 too hard. Though the bass was a little loose and woolly, the mix held together well, with a wonderfully wide soundstage and nice texture for each instrument. The treble was always in good balance with the rest of the mix, never sounding hard or coarse, or dull or lifeless.
I like big buts and cannot lie.
If, so far, this review has seemed an unqualified rave, that's because it is. Which means two things: 1) I'm going to be totally humiliated when JA measures the Mystère ia21 and scratches his head, wondering why I like it so much; and 2) There's gotta be a catch, a proviso, a caveat, a big but to all this positivity. Otherwise, why buy any amplifier other than the Mystère ia21?
Here's that big but: The Mystère ia21 is a 50Wpc tubed integrated amplifier. There are definite limits to its ability to play loudly, handle large dynamic swings, and reproduce concert-level performances in the home. When I pushed it moderately hard, the ia21 politely clipped, whether I was playing recordings of solo voices, big orchestral works, or rock with a wide dynamic range.
I'm one of those who believe that audio reproduction is an illusion. For some large-scale and dynamic music, part of creating that illusion is to play music at high volumes, and that requires amps that can play effortlessly at such levels. The Mystère ia21 just can't produce enough output to drive speakers of normal efficiency to levels that will convince you that a symphony orchestra is playing in your listening room.
That said, the ia21 will reproduce dynamic music, but on its own terms, and at its own, more polite levels. In no way is this a criticism of the Mystère; it's merely a description of what it is: a small tubed integrated amplifier at a reasonable price. In my experience, to get this level of sound quality and the ability to drive power-hungry speakers to concert levels requires spending a lot more than $2995.
It's no mystery.
I loved my time with the Mystère ia21. If you buy one, you will too. Of all the integrated amps I've reviewed in the last yearsee www.stereophile.com/category/integrated-amp-reviewsthe Mystère ia21 is my favorite, the least expensive, and drew the least attention to itself, allowing me to focus on the music. It was just powerful enough to make me mostly forget about its dynamic limitations, and its tonal and spatial rendering of music was quite specialand even more special when you consider that it costs only $2995. The Mystère ia21 combines the fun of tube rolling, the convenience of auto-biasing, classic and distinctive styling, great build quality, and rich, engaging sound. A great value, highly recommended!